Cynics and Cynosures

By Maeve Maddox

These two “doggy” words have quite different meanings.

The word cynic comes from a Greek word meaning “dog-like, currish, churlish.” The word became a nickname for a school of Greek philosophers who disdained the luxuries and polite behavior of cultivated Greeks. Cynic is capitalized when it is used to refer to the philosophers.

Pronunciation Note
cynic [SIN-ik], cynical [Sin-uh-kl], cynicism [SIN-uh-sizm] cynosure Am. [SYNE-uh-SHOOR] Br. [SIN-uh-SHOOR]

The most famous Cynic–one might even say the cynosure of Cynics–was Diogenes. A most committed curmudgeon, Diogenes is remembered for having chosen to live in a tub instead of a house, and for telling Alexander the Great to move because he was blocking the sun.

The word cynosure comes from a Greek word meaning “dog’s tail.” This was the name given by the Greeks to the northern constellation Ursa Minor, the “Small Bear” in whose tail is the Pole-star, also known as the North Star. Because the North Star is bright and a means of finding the direction of north, the word cynosure acquired the figurative meaning of “something that is bright and serves as a guide.”

The philosophy of the Cynics had much to recommend it. Their goal was to live life according to Nature, a philosophy similar to that expressed by Thoreau in Walden. Thoreau, however, minded his manners and didn’t despise creature comforts. The Cynics embraced poverty, hardship, and toil. They criticized the emptiness and hypocrisy of social convention and organized religion; as a result they earned the reputation of people-haters and grumps.

In modern usage, a cynic is a person disposed to find fault with everything and to rant about it to everyone. A cynic trusts no one’s sincerity or good intentions. The adjective is cynical; the noun is cynicism. Here are a few current applications of these words:

Bill Maher is a playful microphone-toting cynic, roaming the landscapes of Christianity, with a few references to Judaism, Islam, and Scientology.

Cynical politicians disingenuously mouth slogans of liberty and national security in order to manipulate the uncertain masses.

The media framing of political news is implicated in activating, if not creating, cynicism about campaigns, policy, and governance.

Social cynicism results from excessively high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities: unfulfilled expectations lead to disillusionment, which releases feelings of disappointment and betrayal.

A few commenters on cynicism, it appears, are a bit limited in vocabulary:

As I got older I found my cynical-ness had mostly gone away.

That’s just pure speculation based on my cynicalness that companies always make deals better after I’ve already gotten mine to make me feel bad.

I think another technique that the author uses is Holden’s cynicalness and over all hypocriticalness.

Cynicism is the noun; no “ness” needed. Hypocrisy is the noun for hypocritical.

Unlike cynic, the word cynosure has positive connotations. A cynosure is someone or something that serves for guidance or direction, a “guiding star.” Not as common as cynic and its related forms, cynosure is nevertheless in current use:

One critic wrote that admiration has grown such that Vemeer is now “displacing Raphael as Europe’s cynosure of artistic perfection.

They have been the subject of many sighs and the cynosure of billions of eyes… I am talking about the paintings that have defined the world of art.

Da Vinci Robotics Exhibitions-conceptualised by Leonardo da Vinci, Open vibe- the brain-computer interface show how brain activity, PR2 Robot, Eccerobot 2–an anthropomimetic robot acting as a human replica–were the cynosure of all eyes in 2011.

Deepika Padukone, who was once a hot favourite with Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni, will be the cynosure of all eyes this cricket season.

If you decide to use cynosure, be sure to avoid the cliché “cynosure of all eyes.”

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3 Responses to “Cynics and Cynosures”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Good one!

    I have never seen cynosure before. I could easily have confused cynosure with sinecure in the limitedness of my vocabularyness.

  • Roberta B.

    If cynical-ness is not a word, I hope “cynicality” never becomes a word. I’m still of the opinion that “physicality” (ugh!) is a word made up by sports announcers, and I still strongly dislike it.

  • venqax

    But physicism would be hard to say. Many people can’t even manage February.

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